Inching Toward Filibuster Reform

Joe Lieberman.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

I think Joe Lieberman’s proposal to – in Brian Beutler’s evocative phrase – let a thousand supercommittees bloom has some real merit:

“The Budget Control Act said that if the Super Committee reached an agreement it would come to congress and for good reasons it would be considered on an expedited basis, it would not be subject to a filibuster, it wouldn’t even be subject to amendments – it would be an up or down vote,” Lieberman told reporters at a breakfast round table hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “The proposal I’m introducing today would extend that process for 90 days into next year…but I’ve done it a little differently since the Super Committee is gone. I’ve said that if any six members of one caucus, six members of the other caucus in the Senate; [or] 15 in the [both caucuses] in the House…submit legislation that is qualified under the bill, which means that it would achieve at least $1.5 trillion of additional debt reduction over the next 10 years, and of course it’s bipartisan, then it would have the benefit of those expedited procedures.”

I would say that we should extend the logic of Lieberman’s idea. The first logical extension would be to eliminate the $1.5 trillion threshold. At the end of the day, $1.5 trillion = $800 billion + $700 billion. It’s very plausible to imagine a scenario in which one group of 51 Senators is prepared to back one medium-sized debt reduction package and a second, only partially overlapping, group of 51 Senators is prepared to back a different one. The inability to use these kind of partially overlapping majorities to move the policy ball forward is one of the major costs of the filibuster, and it would be very much in keeping with the spirit of Lieberman’s to lower the threshold and just say that if congress is serious about deficit reduction then all deficit-reducing bills should get expedited review.

My Lieberman Plus idea would accomplish a large percentage of the good that can be obtained through filibuster reform. The (admittedly important) case of nominations aside, this would mean that no bill can be filibustered unless it scores as reducing the deficit while leaving automatic fiscal stabilizers in place. It’s a good idea, and actually in many ways a surprisingly progressive idea. If you eliminate the arbitary $1.5 trillion threshold then tax hikes, defense cuts, cap-and-trade, most plausible immigration reform ideas, the Affordable Care Act, and a public option would all be eligible for expedited review. With the arbitrary threshold it’s a less broadly beneficial idea, but it still moves the ball forward.